Love and Hate—The Night of the Hunter

Posted by Chuck, March 30, 2011 05:00pm | Post a Comment

There’s an overriding feeling to 1950s films that everything is happy to the point of sedation. The men have fine posture and slick hair; the women are always starched, enthusiastic and dressed for appearance; the children are trite Osh Kosh cutouts. Such play-acting is a perfect backdrop for something leery, an underexposed set-up that precious few directors back then made use of. Yet, that’s why Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955) can’t help but slip into our times as a cult classic.

As with such forgotten films that warrant recirculation, Criterion has brought the film back out on DVD and Blu-ray, and it’s a good thing (one of our staff's fave picks in this issue of Music We Like). There are remarkable things at play, such as it being the only time Laughton (an actor) sat in the director’s chair. As sometimes happens with one-offs, he made it count by forever parting ways with ordinary. It was no small feat. He got Robert Mitchum—the kingpin of film noir—to deliver one of his best performances. Some might argue it was his best work. It’s one of the reasons the film was protected by the National Film Registry.

The movie is an adaptation of Davis Grubb’s book of the same name, published two years earlier. Mitchum plays Reverend Harry Powell, a minister of divine word and adage who yet has a criminally black heart. While spending time in the clink, he learns that a cellmate, set to be hung for murdering two people in the act of a bank robbery, has a stash of $10K hidden back at home. With the slithery suave of a seasoned conman, Powell goes about pursuing this treasure upon his release by moving in on the freshly executed man’s family. What he encounters is a guilt-riddled widow, Willa—played excellently by Shelley Winters—and two children who alone share the secret of the money’s whereabouts (sworn to secrecy by their dead father). Enter darkness.

Powell has a Love/Hate relationship with his knuckles, with the words literally tattooed across the whites of his bones—an ominous note that everybody notices. When he catches them looking he gets on his soapbox and explains the Good versus Evil conundrum in a singsong voice that intends stoicism and martyrdom (his recital is as classic as Samuel L. Jackson breaking down Ezekiel 25:17 in Pulp Fiction). The kids know what’s up immediately, that the preacher suspects they know where the pot of gold is, and they do, of course, which tautens up the tension. Meanwhile, their mother ain’t hearing it, and other small-town folks get a little smitten with the preacher man.

The little boy, John Harper, is also a picture of stoicism, having been entrusted by his father to never tell where the money is hidden—not even his mother. Yet he cracks here and there under Powell’s pressure with just enough to tip his hand. With a backdrop of guilt, religious fervor—when Powell turns his new wife Willa out of bed on grounds of moral sanctity, it’s one of the finer, darker moments—and subterfuge, the film progresses. The kids eventually take off and their nightmare pursues, singing like a man with eternal patience. It’s a cross between classic Hitchcock and the movie Duel. The well-known ’50s façades are everywhere, but things are burbling under all pretensions of cordiality.

If ever there was a film where the finer points are all below the surface, barely uttered—in fact, sometimes barely insinuated—this is it. Made for a chunk of $795,000 back in 1955, it was a box office failure probably for being well out in front of its time. Today, it’s no less anachronistic—but Mitchum’s role is a timeless one, and it’s all he can do to keep the perception of sin where he can remain forever at an advantage. That is, with his prey. 

Buy it here.

Relevant Tags

Hitchcock (6), The Night Of The Hunter (1), Robert Mitchum (5), Pulp Fiction (2), Charles Laughton (3), Samuel L. Jackson (1), Duel (1)